Published September 04, 2012
Highest-Paying College Majors
Students looking for a fiscally prosperous post-college life can find one by pursuing a degree in the maths or sciences. It may not be surprising the engineering and computer science fields land on the list of highest-paid bachelor's degrees. But PayScale.com's "Best Undergrad College Degrees By Salary" report reveals other majors can lead to lucrative careers as well. Following are 10 of the top undergraduate degree fields -- and what you need to do to break into them.
Median mid-career pay: $88,600-$155,000
Median starting salary: $51,700-$97,900
When it comes to landing an impressive paycheck, engineers dominate. Seven of the top highest-paying college majors are in the engineering fields with petroleum, chemical, electrical, materials science and aerospace engineering claiming the top five slots.
Engineers across all disciplines can up their pay by getting a Professional Engineering, or PE, license, says Lawrence Jacobson, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers in Alexandria, Va.
"Only 10% of practicing engineers are licensed, and that's because most manufacturing companies don't require licenses," Jacobson says. "The average delta between the licensed and unlicensed person is about $10,000 per year. Over a 30-year career, that's a lot of money."
Jacobson adds that obtaining a license provides job seekers with more career options, the ability to go into business for themselves and the right to provide expert testimony in court cases. The catch is that getting a PE license is difficult. Jacobson recommends that new engineering grads take the exam as soon as possible, which is usually after completing four to five years of work in the field after graduation.
Median mid-career pay: $97,900
Median starting salary: $56,600
Sky-high grades and work experience play significant roles in landing top computer jobs, but independent projects are valued too, says Gayle Laakmann McDowell, author of "The Google Resume: How to Prepare for a Career and Land a Job at Apple, Microsoft, Google, or any Top Tech Company."
"If you build a really interesting Google Maps competitor and a ton of people download it and it's really well-known, that's going to count more than an internship at a company that nobody knows," she says.
Attending a big-name institution can help get your foot in the door, but it's not crucial to landing an impressive post-college job.
"There are tons of people who come from completely lesser-known schools and get jobs at Microsoft," McDowell says. "A candidate who has a 3.5 (grade point average) from MIT, but has no work and project experience, isn't that interesting."
To turn recruiters' heads, McDowell recommends doing internships, taking classes that assign tough projects and spending your free time coding as much as you can.
Median mid-career pay: $101,000
Median starting salary: $49,800
Master the mathematical foundation of the world around us, and you can land a job practically anywhere. The American Institute of Physics reports that those with a physics degree find work in organizations ranging from high schools and hospitals to the U.S. military, museums, publishing firms, domestic and foreign governments and laboratories. You'll also have to think about continuing your education. Research from Georgetown University shows that 67% of physics majors go on to obtain a higher degree.
Regardless of what career path you choose, Katharine Brooks, author of "You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career," says students need to think beyond their bachelor's degrees.
"Start acquiring experience early on in your academic career. Don't wait until your senior year to look for an internship," she says.
To get a jump on the job hunt, Brooks recommends students create a LinkedIn account, make contacts and reach out to professional associations in their field as soon as possible.
Applied Mathematics and General Mathematics
Median mid-career pay: $89,900-$98,600
Median starting salary: $47,000-$52,600
Applied mathematics, statistics and mathematics majors are known for bringing home the fiscal bacon, but a double bonus to taking one of these degrees is the booming job market in these related fields. Jeff Strohl, director of research for Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, reports that jobs abound. A whopping 95% of mathematics majors and 92% of those majoring in statistics or mathematical decision science fields are employed. If you want to sweeten your paycheck, aim high on the career ladder.
"As people age, moving into management generally leads into higher earnings, regardless of what the major is," he says.
Median mid-career pay: $94,700
Median starting salary: $47,300
"Economics majors tend to pursue business and finance-related fields," says Brooks. "Banking and finance are in the top of the salary strata."
While econ majors do land lucrative gigs with banks and other financial institutions, the degree is also frequently used to establish careers in law, consulting, education, research, government, nonprofit and public policy work, reports the American Economic Association.
Brooks adds that how much you make corresponds more to your career field than your major. For example, an economics major who goes into nonprofit work may earn less than a liberal arts major who enters the financial sector. When choosing a major, Brooks encourages students to think about their desired career field and how well skills developed in a given major might parlay into different occupations.
Management Information Systems
Median mid-career pay: $88,200
Median starting salary: $51,000
"Data matter," says Nathan Lippe, product director of the job-hunting website CareerRookie.com. "If (a company) doesn't have a good team of people looking at their data to understand what things might be able to change that business, they might lose their competitive edge."
Management information systems majors to the rescue. Trained to analyze organizations' computer databases, oversee projects and improve company productivity and efficiency, MIS grads enjoy a practically booming job market with the field growing 17% each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When seeking top MIS jobs, Lippe advises students to use campus resources. "A lot of times (campus) career centers and even professors are going to have relationships with companies that hire a higher volume of those types of students," he says.
Median mid-career pay: $87,300
Median starting salary: $46,500
Not surprisingly, finance is one of the highest-paying college majors. Lippe says college students majoring in finance and who have played a finance role in on-campus organizations will have a leg up over the competition.
"(Students) need to talk numbers. They need to explain, 'I had X dollars in my budget that I was responsible for, this is what we did with those dollars and this is the impact on that organization,'" Lippe says. "Telling that financial story will make you stand out from someone saying, 'Hey, I was a member of the finance club, and I was in it for four years.'"
If your school doesn't require a finance internship, hiring managers will, says Lippe. Interning once is great, but those competing for top positions in the field will graduate with two or three internships under their belts.
Government and Political Science
Median mid-career pay: $80,100-$87,300
Median starting salary: $39,900-$41,400
All levels of U.S. government seek out these majors, but so do domestic and international companies, contracting firms, nonprofits, think tanks, lobbying groups, political campaigns, aid organizations and nongovernmental entities, according to Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. As with economics, degrees in government and political science are very flexible, with grads finding work in public policy, business, finance, marketing, education and legal sectors.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, across all disciplines, hiring on the state and local levels is slower than on the federal level, those who enter in management, business and financial roles will have the greatest likelihood to land jobs.
Construction Management, Supply Chain Management
Median mid-career pay: $84,700-$85,200
Median starting salary: $50,200
Planning, organizing, supervising, analyzing logistics and overseeing the flow of work -- whether it's building a hospital or managing a warehouse -- are the key skills necessary for these college majors. Master these, and you'll be rewarded with a high-paying job with benefits.
The catch is finding that job could be challenging. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the construction management field is expected to expand by 17% this year, supply chain majors who become managers, buyers and purchasing agents will only see a 7% employment increase in their sector.
To break into your industry as quickly as possible, Brooks recommends students make use of their school's alumni network. "That can be a really great way to connect with graduates who majored in the same thing you did," she says.